“If you disagree, go to the front of the line.”
That’s what Charlie Kirk tells the 500-plus people gathered in a ballroom at Montana State University in Bozeman. He and Candace Owens, his coheadliner, have spent the previous 90 minutes proselytizing for the free market — and against “the left” — but, as both have been keen to emphasize, they love to debate. And they want anyone brave enough to argue with their theories to cut in front of all the adoring conservatives in attendance to do so. Disagreement is Kirk’s stock-in-trade and the foundation of his YouTube stardom, his Twitter fandom, and his frequent stints on Fox News, where he shares the gospel that liberals — with their campus protests and calls for deplatforming — are in fact the least tolerant actors in the American political landscape.
For the last two years, Kirk and Owens have crisscrossed the country for a speaking tour they’re calling Campus Clash — making pit stops at major college campuses, from the University of Washington in Seattle to Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania — as the public faces of Turning Point USA, an organization that uses establishment conservative money to gin up young conservative energy.
Like other stars in the constellation of the new, Extremely Online political right, Kirk and Owens pride themselves on their openness to debate. “We think that if you have terrible ideas, we want to hand you a megaphone,” Owens told the crowd. “If your idea isn’t good, we can defeat it with our better ideas. We believe in debate. You can see you’re welcome here, and you’re never gonna have people shout you down. But unfortunately, we don’t get the same treatment on the other side. We have to sneak through kitchens and basements to get in because there’s protesters. Bricks were threatened to be thrown at us at this event.”
I knew about that threat, because Kirk had already tweeted about it; emphasizing just how threatened he and conservative thought are on campus is foundational to Kirk’s brand.
“Hear [sic] are some of the PUBLIC threats that are being made including throwing bricks at us,” Kirk wrote. “This is a crime. Candace and I will walk through front door. They are cowards.”
The tweet was then turned into a post on Turning Point’s website, and distributed on Facebook, where encouraging comments and prayers piled up: “I think it would be wise for them to be armed,” one person said. “The Nazis began their rise to power in academia first. First hand account from my grandmother’s cousin who survived the camps,” another added. “Better not lay one single finger on my woman if you want to keep it,” said another.
Earlier that day, in an appearance on local talk radio, Kirk claimed that the “radical Bozeman left” and antifa would be showing up to their event, with weapons — a message that had spread, like any titillating rumor, through the crowd. Members of the MSU College Republicans, who helped put on the event, told me that they were expecting the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) from Billings and Missoula, and had prepared themselves for outbursts in the crowd, or attempts on the part of the group gathered outside to drown out the event with a rented sound system. (Neither the DSA nor any protesters from out of town showed up to the event; no bricks were thrown.)
The perception of persecution is essential to the TPUSA narrative — it’s a recurring theme in emails (Subject line: “The Left is Targeting TPUSA Activists”) that emphasize that persecution is proof that “WE ARE WINNING the American Culture War.” The narrative is especially necessary at places like MSU, where there have been no recent “campus clashes” — skirmishes in the so-called culture war in which Kirk and Owens have self-appointed themselves as generals — to speak of. Of the scores of professors listed in the TPUSA “Professor Watch List,” none teach at MSU.
But one of the dozens of arguments forwarded by Kirk and Owens is that the culture war is everywhere, and affects everyone. Not just at Berkeley, or Oberlin, but on campuses like Montana State, and in towns like Bozeman, where, they posit, free speech has been tyrannized by safe spaces and political correctness and liberal professors and socialist groupthink.
At the actual event, the only disruption came from one member of the crowd who kept flashing the OK hand symbol — the “ironic” sign for white power — prompting others to complain to police on campus to monitor the event. (Officers discussed whether or not to remove him, but opted not to.) But the rhetoric of “open debate,” coupled with an equally strong narrative of perceived persecution, is the crux of the Turning Point narrative, which flatters its followers with the belief that they are members of the moral high ground.
The logic goes something like this: with safe spaces, trigger warnings, and deplatforming, the left has effectively inoculated itself against critique. Liberals know that their ideas are bad, so they refuse to debate them. Those on the left stifle the First Amendment — and, in so doing, evidence their lack of commitment to the Constitution and the liberty it promises. Members of the right, according to Turning Point, do the opposite. They refuse to suffocate dissent. They welcome debate and, in accordance with the right’s allegiance to free-market capitalism, believe that the best ideas will triumph within the marketplace of ideas.
There were glimpses of this attitude on the ground in Bozeman. But they were overshadowed by a more performative, hollowed-out iteration of the “debate me” mindset — one that craves dissent not as a means to sharpen a position or find empathy for another, but as fodder for a never-ending stream of online dunks and memetic owns.
Over the course of the evening, Kirk and Owens repeatedly referred to Democratic congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who frequently evokes her history working at a bar before getting into politics, as “the Bartender.”
“I’m just scrolling through my feed, getting ready for this event, and come across a tweet from the Bartender about the Mueller report,” Owens said, dismissing Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that she’d finished reading the report. “She’s still trying to figure out how many branches of Congress there are,” she averred.
“What are the percentage chance that she authored this tweet?” Kirk asked.
“Zero, zero percent,” Owens replied. “She didn’t even hit the link to open the DOJ report.”
The routine was a hit. It may have taken me several minutes to figure out who “the Bartender” was, but the crowd, well versed in the derogatory rhetoric that’s accumulated around AOC, laughed with each mention. Later in the night, when Kirk extended his invitation for anyone who disagreed to go to the front of the line, one student took him up on it.
“I’m Patrick, I’m a student at MSU,” he said. “I just think it’s pretty disgusting that you refer to AOC as the Bartender. That job is just as important as manipulating money on the Stock Ex—”
“Is it factually inaccurate?” Kirk cut in.
“What?” Patrick replied, confused.
“Is it factually inaccurate? That she was a bartender?” Kirk asked.
“No,” Patrick replied, tentatively.
“Why is it disgusting?” Owens asked.
“You can call the president a real estate developer,” Kirk said. “I don’t care.”
“I think it’s demeaning to her, by just calling her a bartender,” Patrick said.
“It’s demeaning to talk about someone’s work history?” Kirk asked, prompting a big laugh from the crowd.
“No, but the way that you said it, made it sound like that—”
“—Oh oh oh, OK,” Owens interrupted. “I used to bartend, and waitress. So what’s your question?”
Patrick had taken up their offer to go to the front of the line to voice a dissenting opinion — but it wasn’t an actual opportunity for debate. It was an opportunity for ownage, the sort of moment that could become the most valuable form of currency in the TPUSA world: a meme or, better yet, a video, circulated online under titles like “Charlie Kirk DESTROYS Radical Leftist Rabbi!” and “Charlie Kirk SMASHES Socialism” and “Leftist Student Destroyed After DEFENDING Ilhan Omar!”
In this approach, TPUSA is among the purest real-life distillations of online argumentation — where the most valorized form of interaction is quote-tweeting an own of an argument that you disagree with, essentially porting the opposition into your timeline and serving them up for online demolition. It’s popular among the #Resistance and the pro-Trump internet alike and has produced a new class of pundits, from Twitter historians performing the political version of #BuckleUp Twitter to Mike Cernovich.
Over the course of the evening, it became very clear what Turning Point opposes (feminism, #MeToo, trans people, socialism, Antifa, pussy hats, Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Jussie Smollett, Black Lives Matter, Beto O’Rourke) as well as what it’s for (liberty, the Constitution, the free market, free speech, the Second Amendment, the Bible, Donald Trump, the beautiful state of Montana).
But the thing that animates Turning Point — and what makes it so alluring to its supporters — is its ability to keep the fight going, forever. Which allows the organization’s brand, much like Trump’s, to hinge on the perception of a never-ending, righteous win. And when you’re always winning, there comes a point when the win starts to matter far more than the reason you started playing in the first place.
If you watch Fox News or follow any of the new political stars in Trump’s orbit, Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens have been on your radar for more than a year. In 2012, Kirk (1.06 million Twitter followers) was recruited by a 72-year-old tea partyer named William Montgomery, who’d seen Kirk speak at an event outside of Chicago. Montgomery introduced Kirk to prominent conservative donors Foster Friess, Bruce Rauner (who went on to become governor of Illinois), tech billionaire Greg Gianforte (now Montana state representative), and a handful of others who provided seed funding for Turning Point, whose explicit goal was to educate students (in college and high school) about the essential truths of conservatism: “free market values,” in everything from the economy to free speech.
Kirk, age 25, is handsome and bronzed in the instantly recognizable style of the American frat boy, complete with a Ken Doll haircut. On stage, he wears a dress shirt and well-tailored suit pants, holding the attention of the audience with the swagger of a hedge fund manager. In 2012, he deferred college at Baylor University and began speaking, tweeting, and recruiting “seed money” for TPUSA. He palled around with Donald Trump Jr. and has boasted of meeting personally with the president multiple times. (President Trump has called Kirk “a great warrior.”)
Owens (1.34 million Twitter followers) first drew public attention with a series of YouTube videos, later credited with “red-pilling” Kanye West. Her overarching message, as her Twitter bio puts it, is that “Black People Don’t Have to be Democrats.” She joined TPUSA as head of communications before becoming a central draw for the Culture Clash Tour. She currently hosts The Candace Owens Hour, available via Prager University’s YouTube channel, where every episode tops half a million views. She’s authoritative on stage, quick to cut in and cut down interlocutors — and often overshadows Kirk.
A few weeks ago, former attorney general Jeff Sessions spoke at MSU, to a considerably smaller crowd than the one that gathered for TPUSA. That event was great, some of the MSU College Republicans told me, but nothing compared to this one, which they viewed as a prime recruitment tool for conservatives on campus. Ellie Krizan, a political science major from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, told me since Trump’s election, the College Republicans has expanded from a handful of people to around 40 dues-paying members.
“It’s a little hard for everyone, on any side of the political spectrum, to get your ideas out there,” she said. “But we want to have these conversations, and events like this get the word out — a lot of people on both sides know about Charlie.”
Earlier in the year, Cameron Kroetz, copresident of the MSU Democrats, told me that they’re friendly with the Campus Republicans, and even do events together — a relationship that Krizan confirmed. In many ways, that largely cordial relationship mirrors the Montana electorate, much of which prides itself on voting cross-ticket (in 2016, Trump won the state by more than 20 points — but Democrat Steve Bullock won the governor’s office by just under four points). Many longtime Montanans fear that attitude has begun to fade, however — the result of the same sort of polarization that’s affected the rest of the country, but also a side effect of more conservatives moving to Montana as they flee increasingly blue states (including Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, but California most of all).
The newly hip Bozeman, in close proximity to Yellowstone and world-class skiing, has seen an influx of conservative millionaires as well as college students lured by the newly ascendant university’s programs in engineering and programming. Of the dozen students I spoke with, only one actually grew up in Montana.
“Listen, I’m from 20 minutes outside of San Francisco,” one College Republican, who hoped to get hired as Turning Point staff, told me. “I’ve seen the 99% rallies. The gay pride. I’ve seen all that destruction, even at Giants parades. We need events like this to counter that. Luckily, the protesters are contained. They said they’re gonna stay nonviolent. But they’ve got a sound system, so who knows.” (The sound system was not heard within the Student Union Building, or SUB.)
At MSU and across the United States, Turning Point provides a better-funded network for conservative students than what they’d find under the larger College Republican umbrella, with an infrastructure that supports leaders, trips, and speakers in a way that the annual College Republican dues could not. (Turning Point operates as a 501(c)(3), a status that allows it to mask the identity of its donors, but also prohibits the organization from engaging in political action. Yet in 2017, a New Yorker investigation found that Turning Point had done political work for at least two candidates in 2016. TPUSA has contested the New Yorker’s findings.)
Part of Kirk’s nearly year-round travel is wooing donors on the promise of swaying a young voter demographic that, according to recent Pew polling, is trending more liberal than ever before. In 2018, TPUSA told the Weekly Standard that it planned to raise $15 million. Part of that money goes straight to Kirk (who, when questioned about his salary at Politicon, repeatedly yelled, “I live like a capitalist every single day!”) and his appearances on campuses.
But a considerable amount of money goes toward footing the bill for students across the US to attend annual conferences (for high schoolers, college students, and women) and its “campus leadership program,” which financially supports conservatives running for leadership positions on campus, both within the Greek system and the Associated Student Body. The move has prompted some institutions to institute the equivalent of campaign finance reform, but Turning Point’s self-proclaimed influence might be overstated: In 2018, Politico attempted to contact a random sampling of 50 candidates touted in TPUSA fundraising materials as “wins.” Many denied any affiliation with the organization; some even specifically condemned it.
Apart from supporting campus leaders, the money also funds “activism kits,” filled with stickers and signs, and “activism grants,” which bankroll campus initiatives related to “pro-free market activism.” One MSU student told me that the organization’s presence on campus boiled down to a lot of “tabling” (setting up tables in the SUB during lunchtime) and giving out trolly stickers and signs to rile up passersby.
There are other ways of trolling — like wearing a “Socialism Sucks” shirt mocked up to look like Bernie’s 2016 campaign logo, a shirt that reads Liberty Guns Beer Trump (LGBT), or even a MAGA hat. But some members think those displays singled them out on campus — which they see as indicative of a greater censorship of ideas.
“When I wear my MAGA hat on campus, I get glared at,” Mikaela Devries, a senior from the tiny town of Denton, Montana, told me. “I’ve had professors look at me and tell me that I shouldn’t get a campus job because of it. When I wear it in the SUB, every student gave me that look.” As a community health major, she feels that liberalism has infiltrated every part of her education. “There’s this feeling that you have to like Obamacare,” she said.
Devries first got involved in Turning Point when she attended its annual Young Women’s Leadership Summit, which she describes as the opposite of feminist. In fact, she believes feminism — specifically, “third-wave feminism, which forces men to accept all of these new things,” is driving women away from the left and “towards conservatism.” Devries connects with other conservatives online, “through this place called the intellectual dark web,” where, she explains, “we post memes and hash stuff out.”
One of Devries’ primary concerns is combating socialism’s spread amongst her peers. “People like AOC, she’s very convincing for young people. But for me, I’ve studied history. I know how these things work out. They want socialism because they want free stuff over freedom.” (This is a sentiment echoed, nearly word for word, in a sign distributed by TPUSA on campus.)
Ten feet away, a line of audience members waited for a chance to peruse tables laden with free stuff: stickers reading CAPITALISM CURES, I’M A VICTOR NOT A VICTIM, and COEXIST spelled out in gun paraphernalia, plus a glossy poster of Ronald Reagan on a horse. “I’m gonna take one of these back for my dad!” one student exclaimed.
On the night Kirk and Owens were scheduled to appear, the MSU Democrats had made a conscious decision not to engage. “They’re trying to stir up a culture clash that doesn’t exist,” Kroetz told me. “And we don’t want to give them what they want, just so they can post it on Twitter.” But he supported the “Demonstration for True Civil Discourse,” hosted by the campus group Fuerza Latinx, that was gathering on a grassy hill outside the SUB. Along with members of the Queer Students Alliance, the campus feminist group, and a smattering of community members, the group made signs that read WHITE SILENCE IS VIOLENCE and SUPPORTING YOUR RIGHT TO YOUR BACKWARDS VIEW.
“There’s not a culture war here,” Fuerza Latinx Copresident Jacqueline Burgara said. “It’s very much a shock to us that they’re here.” But they didn’t want the TPUSA message to go unquestioned. “They justify their ideas by saying, ‘Those liberals out there, they’re the reason we’re here, they’re the reason we’re persecuted on campus.’ We wanted to give them reaction, but not satisfaction.”
“You guys must be the violent protesters,” one man said as he walked up to the group quietly making posters on the grass, a plastic container in his hand. “Do you want some cookies?”
Burgara went over to check on some sign makers near the door to the SUB, where Brad Fox, dressed in a Turning Point USA T-shirt paired with a freshly gelled crew cut, attempted to snag her attention. “You guys committed violence against us,” he said, his voice flat, conversational.
“What violence?” she replied. “What violence today?”
“Somebody flipped our table,” he said. “And popped our beach ball.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “I know someone said we were taking down your posters. But we weren’t. We told the campus police about it.” The conversation went back and forth, with Fox needling Burgara on various issues, including Jordan Peterson and the concept of victimhood. The conversation grew stale, until Fox asked, “Do you want to look up two videos that changed my perspective? C’mon, you can show me one of yours. We’ll trade.”
“Look, I have nothing against you,” Burgara said. “But I am against the way you leave violence behind, such as denigrating safe spaces.”
Fox, who serves as a regional coordinator for TPUSA, disagreed and launched into a digression that included mention of Burkean philosophy and phallogocentrism (whose Latin roots he spelled out for Burgara) before telling her how difficult it was to find advisers for Turning Point on campus. “I think our adviser here is a chemistry professor,” Fox said. “It took us six months. I’ve had business professors who wanted to be our advisers but said that they couldn’t get tenure if they agreed to do it.” (I was unable to confirm this assertion.)
No one’s voice was raised, and no one was owned. But a version of their interaction was later modeled on stage as well: a barrage of ideas and words presented as facts, and a reluctance to take the argument of the other side seriously in any substantive way — apart from an offer to watch a YouTube video.
When Burgara excused herself, I asked Fox how he’d familiarized himself with some of the more sophisticated philosophies he’d name-checked. It wasn’t in college — he went to Northwest Nazarene University, he said, an evangelical Christian institution outside of Boise, Idaho. It was from Andrew Breitbart’s book, Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World! “I was in the truck, listening to AM radio, and I heard an interview with Andrew Breitbart,” he said. “I looked up a YouTube video of Breitbart, and then bought his book. Cultural Marxism, all that, I learned it from Breitbart.”
Andrew Breitbart is just one of many roads that lead to Kirk, whose fandom is by no means limited to Gen Z. Inside the SUB, a friendly couple in their sixties from just outside of Bozeman told me they’d found out about the event on Facebook. “We watch Charlie on Fox News,” the husband said. “And I’ve seen a bunch of Candace’s videos.” Over in the corner, Janel and Raynor McClendon, both in their early thirties, said that they’d also heard about the event on Facebook.
Raynor left the Marine Corps in 2016, in part because he and his wife thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. Janel had graduated from MSU in 2006, so they decided to move back to Bozeman for Raynor to enroll for his undergraduate degree. But they didn’t anticipate just “how liberal” the university had become. “I know some of the people respect Raynor’s thoughts because he’s a vet,” Janel said. “But there’s still a feeling of what you can’t say.”
“I asked this professor why she went to the Women’s March, what’s that all about. I wanted to know!” Raynor said. “And she couldn’t give me an answer.”
“It wasn’t until Obama that all the racism and division started happening,” Janel added. “I was living here on campus with a bunch of black football players, and now, some of them can’t even be friends with me anymore, just because I’m a Republican. But I’m here to support Candace. She’s so well spoken, she’s strong, she’s articulate. I hate when people say that my party is a white party. I’m not a Republican because I like white people! I’m a Republican because I hate big government because of dealing with the VA.”
Janel wasn’t the only person annoyed by suggestions affiliating her political ideology with whiteness. When I spoke with Turning Point’s publicist ahead of the event, he cautioned me against suggesting that TPUSA was white supremacist, or affiliated with white nationalists in any way. “If you talk to someone who mentions white nationalism,” he said, “You point that person out to Charlie, and he’ll throw him out of the room.”
Throwing a white supremacist out of the room would’ve made a great video. But the only person who mentioned white supremacy at the event was Owens, ridiculing those who’ve called her a “black white supremacist” for her politics. When Kirk took the stage — following glowing introductions from Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte — he immediately set the tone.
“I’m from Illinois, and my grandmother was a lifetime Republican,” Kirk said. “She died in the ‘90s, and has been voting Democrat ever since.” It’s a joke, but it’s also, of course, a posture: propagating baseless contemporary claims of election fraud. Kirk emphasized his commitment to free speech (”I believe firmly that when people stop talking, bad things happen”) and the organization’s commitment to other perspectives (“Even if there are left-wing Marxists in the audience, welcome, truly”) while underlining the bravery necessary to stick to those principles (“We’re the only conservative duo to speak at UC Berkeley, USC, and UCLA in one semester and lived to tell the tale”).
But the event didn’t really come alive until Owens joined Kirk onstage — at which point it morphed into something not unlike a practiced comedy set, only instead of dolty husbands or nagging wives, the punchlines, again and again, were clueless liberals. “Why does the left hate me so much?” Owens asked. “Why do they try to pretend that I advocate for white supremacy? It’s because I’m advocating for pro-black policies.”
Such as: Black people don’t have to be Democrats, and black people should embrace capitalism and the free market.
“They hate that message,” Owens said, “Because the left needs a permanent underclass. The left needs victims. They search for victims in every single regard. The hashtag #MeToo movement, they want women to get behind something and be victimized by men. Black Lives Matter was a movement that wanted the black community to feel victimized by police officers and white people. They’re constantly pitting us against each other because it’s the only way they can have power. Is that right?”
“Absolutely,” Kirk responded. “And to expound on that, remember Occupy Wall Street? They wanted to pit successful people against middle-class workers — that somehow they’d be at odds. That people who enjoy success and create a business should somehow be enemies with people who have middle-class jobs?”
Without missing a beat, Owens broke in. “What do you think it’ll be in 2020? Tall versus short people?”
The audience guffawed. “They’ve created the oppression Olympics,” Owens continued. “Where they’re all competing to be more oppressed than the other person. ... The greatest thing you can be to the left would be a black lesbian disabled woman.” (Laugh break) “You’d win all the trophies.”
Trophies were invoked as a sign of liberals’ misplaced values — values that led to unhappiness.
“I tell people this all the time: Follow the path of people you found on the left, people who you think are happy,” Kirk said.
“No one thinks Lena Dunham is happy,” Owens interjected. “She doesn’t shave her armpits.”
The crowd erupted in laughter. “Just kidding,” Owens said, pausing briefly, and lowering her voice. “Not really.”
Without the Campus Clash tour, there’s no campus clashing; without campus clashes, there’s no opportunity to fetishize the “win,” the moment of destruction, the annihilation of opposing ideas. The most effective bludgeoning tool is “facts” — or, more precisely, data that Kirk declares as fact. When, later in the Q&A, an audience member asked Kirk to speak to reconcile his small-government philosophy with Trump’s expanding one, Kirk responded, “The Trump budget itself reduces government. It closes federal agencies and merges all of them. ...You know there’s been more workers who have left the federal bureaucracy than have been hired under the Trump presidency? Did you know that?”
A “fact,” used to expose a lack — a vulnerability, a loss. “No, I did not,” the questioner said. “But I’d like to see some numbers though.”
“I just gave you a fact,” Kirk responded.
“We don’t really have a chart or access to...” Owens added.
“You’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts,” Kirk said.
The irony is that Kirk has entitled himself, over and over again, with his own “facts.” He wields them on Twitter in double-spaced sentences, creating rhetorical spaces that allow readers to “let that sink in.”
Is an observation — that Ocasio-Cortez has not tweeted about the Sri Lanka bombings, for example — a fact? Is a claim about CO2 emissions that omits crucial context a fact? What about one that neglects the fact that “illegal aliens” do, in fact, pay billions from their wages into government systems over the course of their lives in the United States?
Charlie Kirk is not the first public figure, on either side of the political spectrum, to cherry-pick or willfully misinterpret data, statements, or proposals, transforming them into “facts” intended to cudgel the opposition into submission. But these “facts” don’t persuade interlocutors to the opposing side. Instead, they assure those who already agree on their righteousness. Kirk and Owens don’t engage in debate and win; they just cut to the winning. The resultant applause seems like victory, but it’s just the sound of one hand clapping.
There are elements of both Kirk and Owens — their youth, their swagger, their speed — that evoke classical high school and college debate, absent the rules and judges that serve as guardrails. But the comparison to that contemporary iteration of debate isn’t necessarily a compliment. As Aisling McCrea recently argued in the Outline:
The aim of debate is not to provide a detailed, cogent, well-sourced answer to the question at hand. The aim of debate is to be the most convincing, not the smartest, and anyone who’s good at debating knows this. This is how former Breitbart scribe Ben Shapiro has a reputation as an intellectual warrior when his arguments mostly consist of saying incorrect things very fast. This is why conservative political commentator Steven Crowder has a series called “Change My Mind” in which he ambushes random college kids with a big binder full of pre-prepared talking points, and pulls the mic away from them anytime they seem like they might actually change someone’s mind.
McCrea roots her argument in her own experiences in high school debate — better known as forensics, which, depending on your school, is an extracurricular activity that can earn you a varsity letter. As McCrea points out, it’s not politics, at least not in terms of honing political policy. It’s theater: entertaining and, in its most melodramatic form, intended to make the world morally legible, a place of clearly delineated winners and losers, right and left, happy people and miserable ones.
Kirk himself would agree that what he practices on stage is not politics. “The values that Turning Point talks about, these are not political values,” Kirk told the crowd. “People say Turning Point USA is a political organization, we're not. Talking about American exceptionalism, the constitution, free enterprise, self-empowerment, improving the black community, these are not political issues — these are things that almost every American should believe in.” They are more than beliefs, because beliefs can be argued, or disbelieved. To Kirk, they are facts, which, in his world, means that they are never not winning.
When I was in college, in a freshman “great books” seminar ripe for a culture clash moment, my professor — recognizing the possibility that there were both Jews and Christians in the class — prefaced our discussion of the biblical Book of Job with a statement that’s stuck with me ever since. “To analyze and interrogate this piece of writing is not to attack it,” he said. “It may lead you to ask questions of your faith, but if your faith is strong, it will be able to withstand it.” Whether he knew it or not, he was echoing theologian John Luther Adams, whose ideas had echoed across my childhood: “an unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident.”
True interrogation of an idea has two ends: It can disarm it altogether, or it can fortify it anew. But Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens aren’t interested in interrogating their ideas, or even, in truth, debating them. They’ve become so accustomed to their own wins, so dependent on the everlasting own and the fight that accompanies it, that the substance of the argument itself fades further and further into the rear view — until it disappears entirely.
Recalling his time in high school debate in an essay for Harper’s, writer Ben Lerner described the feeling of envelopment, of near-possession, that would accompany his performance. “I would begin to feel less like I was delivering a speech and more that a speech was delivering me,” he wrote, “that the rhythm and intonation of my presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that I no longer had to organize my arguments so much as let them flow through me.”
Form dictates content, form supersedes content, and eventually, form becomes a substitute for self. When I talked to audience members at MSU, and asked them what they liked about Kirk and Owens, the answers were variations on a theme: It wasn’t what they said, but how they said it. Kirk and Owen’s form is the performance of a fight, the comfort of the win that was never in question. What else is there to know? ●